At some point, though Michael couldn't honestly say when that was, it turned into a game.
All he knows is it had been a while. All he knows is he hadn't tried to stop it and there were no real rules that they'd ever applied to it, no best two out of three, no best three out of five, five out of nine, so there was no objective way to win, for either of them. And so, it just continued.
It's been almost twenty years now since Fox River and a lot has changed in Michael's life since then. Things fell apart with Sara so he took that job that he'd been offered with the CIA after all, just as an independent contractor instead of some kind of an agent or an asset or whatever it was they liked to call their people who all seemed to end up the same way: as unnamed stars on a wall. He took well-paid, medium-risk jobs and sent Sara three quarters of the money he earned because he figured she'd need it more than he ever would. And, somewhere down the line, when the name came up, he stopped seeing Alex Mahone as an enemy and started seeing something else instead.
Twenty years since Fox River, they were playing this ridiculous game. They'd find each other, wherever they moved to; at first they sent postcards, birthday cards, Christmas cards, never enough to blow each other's cover, just enough to get the message through, that each knew where the other was, that they could find each other anywhere. They had months of that, a year, maybe a little more, but then Michael came home once, back in Ottawa, to find a painting of a fox crossing a stream hanging in his bedroom - Alex had even hammered in the hook to hang it from, which Michael guessed he had to appreciate. Later, he broke into Alex's place in Dubai to leave a matchstick model of Sona sitting on the coffee table, with tiny matchstick people who almost looked a little like the two of them. Sometimes, he wonders what Alex did with it. He knows he kept the painting - it's in a storage locker in New Jersey, in case he ever needs it.
And, over the years, things escalated.
Once, he broke into Alex's place in Algiers and he stayed the night there because he knew Alex wouldn't be back until the next afternoon. He ate Alex's food and he slept in his bed, used his shower, used his towels, and when he left, he stuffed his own shirt into the hamper with the rest of the dirty laundry and he wore one of Alex's instead; with his jacket on despite the heat outside, it wasn't like the short sleeves showed off his pseudo-Arabic tattoos. And later, back home, he knew there'd been a second when he'd almost stayed and waited. He'd've liked to have seen him, even just from the other side of a telephoto lens. It had been a while, after all, and in when he's feeling his most truthful, he knows the only reason he wasn't sitting there waiting when Alex opened the door was that Michael didn't want to blow his cover.
Over the years, things escalated. He'd find a wine glass with Alex's fingerprints all over it sitting on the nightstand by the bed. He'd find the furniture all just an inch out of place or his sheets would smell like Alex's cologne or sometimes there were smudges of blood in the bathroom sink and the first aid box had been ransacked. And he did the same thing himself - he used Alex's place like he'd use his own then he'd leave it clean except for a few strategic things, the little things only Alex would see. Little things like the bookmark in the novel by his bed that mysteriously skipped three chapters forward, or the shower heat left turned up a few degrees to where Michael's always liked it. Alex would know.
They'd been playing this game for years, tracking each other down and leaving just the barest of traces to show that they were ever there. They both move often. They both work a lot. They seldom miss an opportunity to needle one another. Until now, he really hasn't known how to stop. He's not sure he's wanted to, at least not for long.
He's been living in Paris for three months now and yesterday, Alex found him again. This time, it's different. After all this time, that difference is almost a relief.
He knew someone was there maybe seven seconds after he walked in. The apartment smelled like coffee over the scent of his own shower gel and body spray hanging in the air, except he hadn't showered anytime in the last four hours and he'd gone out without as much as a single cup of coffee. Link's boots and coat weren't abandoned in the hall where he could almost fall right over them, like he usually did, so he knew it couldn't be his brother. And he thought maybe he knew who it was instead but maybe that was just who he just wanted to be, so he reached for the gun in the drawer by the door just in case.
"You don't need the Glock, Michael," Alex called, but he took it with him anyway as he went through into the kitchen.
Alex was drinking a cup of coffee over a newspaper at the table on the small balcony that was just outside the open kitchen doors. His feet were bare on the tiles in the late morning sun and he was wearing Michael's robe, and Michael lowered the gun as he stood there, still just inside the open doors, the other side of the threshold. Somehow he didn't think even Alex Mahone was going to murder him with an imported copy of the New York Times, but that didn't mean he wasn't going to keep a sensible distance anyway. He'd never been the reckless brother, after all; he was the one whose contingencies had contingencies.
"I didn't think you'd mind," Alex said, folding up the newspaper and gesturing at the robe with it. "I had a long flight. I thought I'd freshen up before you came home."
"From Argentina?" Michael asked, the gun still in his hand behind the kitchen wall.
"From Venezuela," Alex replied. He raised his brows at him as he smoothed the newspaper out flat against the table. "But I think you knew that."
Michael smiled faintly and a fraction wryly. "I did," he admitted, and he put the gun down on the kitchen counter, just inside the door. He crossed his arms over his chest. Alex looked at him. Michael met his gaze and looked right back at him.
"Why are you here, Alex?" he asked, because after all the time that had passed, that was the million dollar question.
The problem was, he wasn't sure he really wanted to know the answer. A few reasons came immediately to mind, some of them with a greater probability attached than others, and he wasn't sure which was true when he ran the scenarios inside his head because honestly, he's never been completely sure of Alex at all. Except maybe back when he was still using - the drugs might've made him seem a whole lot more erratic to everyone else who knew him, but knowing his motivation had made him easier for Michael to predict. Right at that moment, he had no idea what Alex's motivation was. Since Sona, since the getting clean, he's been a mystery he hasn't tried too hard to solve. He'd ask himself why that is, except he knows already.
Four years ago, Michael walked into an assignment back home on US soil and found Alex was the partner who'd been hired to work with him. He almost walked back out again but something stopped him doing that - something he can't quantify and the unquantifiable, the unexplained and inexplicable, has always bothered him. They did the job together, six weeks in New York though of course the CIA officially can't and doesn't operate on US soil, but then again neither of them has ever been officially employed by the CIA. Michael is paid via corporations within corporations into a Swiss bank account only he can access. He understands that. If you're going to deal in secrets, that's the way things have to be; secrets are what keep both him and Alex in gainful employment.
They worked together for three weeks. They worked together closely, bounced ideas back and forth while they did the necessary surveillance, shared a CIA apartment that didn't officially belong to the CIA at all, and the proximity was maddening. Michael had worked with others by that point but Alex was different, their history made it different, and though they had all the usual modern conveniences at hand and it was cold outside, it was snowing on and off, the claustrophobia of it all was somehow just like Sona.
Their separate rooms both led into the same shared bathroom and they shaved and they brushed their teeth side by side at the double sinks some mornings - most mornings. Alex didn't seem to think anything at all of stripping naked and showering while Michael shaved his head at the counter, getting hair stuck to his skin that Alex sometimes brushed away after though the contact made Michael flinch. They danced around each other getting breakfast, always just a little too close though the kitchen was generous. And Alex kept looking at him, not even trying to hide it, though Michael couldn't interpret what that meant, like a cipher missing a key. But the worst part of it all wasn't the proximity or how rattled Michael felt by it. It wasn't the way that Alex looked at him. It was something else.
It wasn't even the dreams, or how he'd think about Fox River, about Sona, and about things that hadn't happened but he knew he wished they had. He remembered Alex's voice on the telephone while they were still running, feeling him there not even a full step away behind. He remembered Alex saving his life, Alex pushing him up against that wall, hard and close and hot and dangerous. He dreamed that voice on the phone as he lay in bed at night, twenty feet from where Alex was, telling him exactly where his hands should go under the sheets. He dreamed that day in Sona, but with Alex's teeth at his throat and his palms on his skin as he pulled off his shirt. He dreamed they were alone there, in the dirt and the dark and the heat, the only two prisoners left, like his matchstick men. Maybe fucking him would have made the symptoms of Alex's withdrawal seem bearable. Maybe fucking him would have made Michael's situation seem more bearable, too.
The worst part wasn't the claustrophobia. The worst part wasn't realizing the things he wanted from Alex Mahone. It was the clarity of thought he had whenever the two of them talked. It was the fact that working with Alex made him better than he was alone.
It ended in a firefight, with four men dead but neither of them, at least not that Michael knew about. He had no way to know if Alex had lived or died and that made him sick to his stomach, but when he got back to the apartment, his jaw clenched, his hand at the pistol he was carrying underneath his bloodstained coat, Alex was there. He had his gun pointed squarely at Michael's chest as he came in through the door but he put it down as he stood, as he moved, as he came closer, quickly, crossing the floor in rapid strides, the look on his face just so much overwhelming, hot relief. And the next thing he knew, Alex was kissing him, pushing him back against the door and turning the lock with one fumbling hand and kissing him, like that made sense somehow.
Maybe it did, Michael thought at the time though he's gone back and forth on that over and over again since then. Maybe this was how he should have interpreted the looks that Alex gave him - if Michael had been interested, though he'd tried to push that back behind a wall, maybe Alex had been, too. Maybe that was what was driving this, he thought, and it seemed that way as Alex's mouth dropped to the crook of Michael's neck, as Alex shrugged off his own jacket and then worked on Michael's next. Michael let him. Michael helped him, his fingers fumbling with Alex's clothes and then his own, because he felt the same relief that he'd seen on Alex's face, the same surge of something in him that made this even seem to be a plausible option. He let Alex unbuckle his belt and push one hand inside his slacks. He hissed in a breath as he let Alex stroke him. This was what he'd wanted back at Sona, even if he hadn't let himself admit it.
Alex's hands were almost shaking as he touched him, and this time Michael knew that wasn't from the drugs. Alex pulled back for a moment, his face flushed and one hand wrapped tight around Michael's cock, and there was a moment when Michael almost thought that was it, it was over, they were going to stop and declare it a mistake or else not speak of it at all and go their separate ways. They didn't do that. It didn't stop there, though it probably should have.
Alex pressed his mouth to Michael's, palmed the head of his cock, slipped his free hand down over the curve of his ass. And then he pulled back, and Michael felt something in him tighten in anticipation as he watched Alex walked away. He came back with the moisturizer Michael had been using on his hands almost compulsively for days and set it down on the table by the door where they'd been leaving their keys; he watched Alex slick his fingers with it, watched Alex step back in, watched the flustered look on Alex's face as their eyes met and Alex's arm moved back behind him, as Alex's slick fingers rubbed between his cheeks. He took an unsteady breath and yanked his own shirt up underneath his arms as Alex's mouth went to his neck, as Alex's fingertips brushed against his hole, as he teased him without really teasing him, pushing just the tip of one inside him and then the tip of another. It was maddening. It was exhilarating. It made Michael's hands ball into fists around handfuls of Alex's shirt as finally, his fingers pushed inside him.
He pushed back against them, too awash with adrenaline to care how that seemed, and Alex pushed them deeper in response as he moved his other hand around Michael's cock. His eyes closed, his breath hitched, his head rested back heavily against the locked apartment door, but then Alex moved again, pulled back again, and pushed him up face-first against the door. Michael flattened his hands to the grain of the wood and braced against his forearms. He understood what was next. When Alex rubbed his cock between his cheeks, when he gripped his hips and pushed inside him with a half muffled groan, he wanted it. He wanted him.
Alex rested his forehead down between Michael's shoulder blades as he moved in him. Alex gripped hard at Michael's hips and Michael pushed back to meet him. His skin felt flushed and hot and he was hard, so hard, pushing so close to the door with each thrust that the tip of his cock brushed against it now and then and made him shiver. He rested his own head against his forearm and he wrapped one hand around himself and he stroked, hard, unsteady, as Alex's cock pushed deeper, skin to skin. Alex wrapped one arm around Michael's waist to keep him close as he moved and he reached down, his hand squeezing over Michael's for a second and then squeezing tight around his balls. Michael came like that, muffling a shout against his forearm. Alex wasn't far behind, still pushed up deep inside him, his mouth pressed to the nape of Michael's neck.
They stood there, just like that, for another minute, or maybe another two or three. They stood there while they caught their breath and Alex's erection started to soften inside Michael till he pulled back out again. Alex wrapped his arms around Michael's waist and Michael wanted to stay, he really did, he really felt that, but he knew he couldn't. They were still in danger. And so, he left without a word - he didn't even wait till the next day, he didn't take Alex to bed, he didn't touch him again, he just rearranged his clothes and grabbed his bag and left, and Alex let him. He didn't even wait until the bruises showed, and he's never admitted to examining them in the mirror in a hotel bathroom, naked and wincing and full of regret.
They never brought it up again. For years, they didn't even speak; postcards from around the world and a painting of a fox really, really didn't count as meaningful communication. They started playing games instead.
Then, four years later, there they were again: on a different continent, yes, but still toying with each other.
"Why are you here, Alex?" Michael asked, though he wasn't sure he wanted to hear the answer.
Alex stood up from the table. He ran one hand over his shower-damp hair and he rubbed his face and he looked at him and Michael looked back. It looked like he was wearing his robe, and only his robe, judging by his bare calves and the deep V of bare chest it exposed. He looked older, but Michael knew that he was still the same.
"Someone's been sleeping in my bed," Alex said, by way of reply, in an exhausted sing-song voice. Then he stepped forward. He put his hands on Michael's shoulders. "You're driving me crazy," he said. "It's time to stop playing games."
He should've thrown him out, but he didn't because the fact was that in spite of everything, he didn't want to. He brought his hands up instead, to the belt of the robe. He tugged it open and Alex let him do it, his back to the street. Alex let him put his hands to his bare skin. Michael could feel the way that Alex's pulse was racing, just like his was.
Michael stepped in and pressed his mouth to his. Michael turned and led him to the bedroom. And when he took off his clothes and Alex pressed him down, when Alex's hands skimmed the all the places his tattoos had been, it didn't feel much like a game. Not anymore.
Yesterday, Alex found him; today, Alex is still here. They're drinking coffee on the balcony. Michael has no plans to ask him to leave and Alex shows no signs of leaving.
There was never a way for either of them to win the game they played, but conceding defeat somehow feels a lot like victory.